Reviewed By Ian Denning
At one point in Salvatore Pane's Last Call in the City of Bridges, the narrator, ironic-to-the-marrow twenty-something hipster Michael Bishop, mentions an infamous internet meme. It's an image of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I have a dream” speech. Some internet prankster has photoshopped an orange popsicle into King's upraised fist and subtitled the image, “I have a dreamsicle.” It's a fitting image for Last Call in the City of Bridges, a book that constantly muddles up the earnest and the ironic, the cynical and the striving.
Last Call in the City of Bridges follows Michael Bishop, a hard-drinking twenty-five-year-old Pittsburgher who works a dead-end job subtitling DVD featurettes. His best friends from college have landed badly in adulthood: Sloane, his friend and one-time lover, works at a coffeeshop and hosts sad little potlucks with her cheating fiancee. Oz, Michael's bearded, technogeek roommate, is disappearing down the rabbit hole of graduate school, studying digital humanities, writing papers filled with academese like “the inherent constant of play in new forms of subjectivity.” The brightest spot in Michael's life is Ivy Chase, the hot blond daughter of a luddite pastor, a girl whose genuine nature and lack of irony (despite her hipster trappings of vintage clothes and a love of indie pop) constantly surprise him. Pane's characters talk about Duck Hunt and Super Mario Brothers in bars. They fall in and out of love with one another, make bad decisions, spy on each others' revelatory Facebook messages. The book hits all of those novel-about-young-adulthood touchstones, and I often wondered if I would like the book as much if Michael's world were not also my own.
For that reason, I had a love-hate thing going with Last Call in the City of Bridges for the first fifty pages or so. On one hand, Salvatore Pane and his characters are fixated on the same things I'm fixated on: retro video games, internet culture, Kanye West, drinking cheap regional beer. On the other hand, Last Call in the City of Bridges wants to be one of those seminal generational coming-of-age novels, a Rabbit, Run or a Less than Zero for Millenials, and the language Pane wraps around us digital natives sometimes sets my teeth on edge. For example, the book opens with this passage, describing Barack Obama's election in 2008:
It was supposed to be the greatest night of our lives. By our, I mean my entire generation, all those unlucky souls raised by the 8-bit wastelands of Nintendo, all those boys and girls who watched the Berlin Wall crumble in kindergarten, the Twin Towers in high school. Overeducated, Twittering, viral. We were in the process of becoming beams of light. Too fast. Too quick for the longwinded ruminations of cinema, the sluggish pace of weekly television installments, the painful seconds it took to scan blog entries of celebrities and friends alike. We were a generation of microbloggers, 140 character rants. Election Night was supposed to be our moment, but not all of us were ready to believe.
Yikes, I thought upon first reading this passage. It is trying so hard. And is it legitimate for Pane to pigeonhole an entire generation, a demographic of Americans eighty-million strong? (Never mind that this paragraph describes me and many of my friends perfectly.) The generalizations continue: the bar our narrator chooses to spend his election night in is “packed with twenty-somethings cool enough to name check obscure bands with low run EPs, to wear vintage threads from the thrift shop next door, to recognize that all emotion had turned irrelevant in the rising tide of millennial irony.” Hmm.
But as I read on, I realized this oversimplifying was not Salvatore Pane, the twenty-something writer, but Michael Bishop, his twenty-something narrator, a guy who holds up irony and generalizations as a shield against all the complicated things of the world. It's a good time to talk about irony. Braddock Avenue Books released Last Call in the City of Bridges less than two weeks before the New York Times published Christy Wampole's controversial opinion piece “How to Live Without Irony,” and Pane's and Wampole's takes on “ironic living” (Wampole's phrase), have a lot of similarities. Wampole writes, “For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s—members of Generation Y, or Millenials—particularly middle class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.” Wampole, you'll notice, deals in the same generational generalizations as Michael Bishop. “The hipster,” she continues,
haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone)... He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
Michael's individuality is very much bound up in material things: retro movies and video games, Yuengling beer and the Nintendo Entertainment System he played as a child (“all boxy and gray, my plastic portal to other worlds”). He wears an almost impenetrable cloak of popular culture, ironic nostalgia, and internet witticisms. Last Call in the City of Bridges is the story of how he learns, as Wampole puts it, to dust away “the ashes of irony” and become a grownup.
It's not easy. Pane's characters have complicated relationships with their detachment. Michael has learned to drop the hip repartee when he thinks a more earnest approach will curry favor with women. He recalls a night in college when he and Sloane slept together—a bad romantic decision that Michael likes to play off as inconsequential. Right before the fateful moment, he tells her, “Do you realize... that everything on this entire planet baffles and terrifies me? Do you understand how insanely uncomfortable I am in my own skin? Do you get how often I fantasize about becoming someone else?” It's a testament to Pane's skill that this moment is equal parts heartbreaking vulnerability and manipulation. Michael doesn't leave his irony-shield lowered for long: the morning after their tryst, Michael wakes Sloane with the phrase, “What up, dawg?”
As they enter their mid-twenties, Michael and his friends struggle to maintain their well-cultivated disconnection. “For the relatively well educated and financially secure,” Wampole writes, “irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime.” But in Pane's world, one day that APR is going to skyrocket. Nintendo games and vintage sweaters give no answers to the toughest questions of adulthood. One by one, every character in Last Call in the City of Bridges faces a failure of the ironic and technological means he or she uses to keep the world at arm's length. Hipsterdom has nothing to tell Ivy Chase about God, nor Sloane about love. Oz, tired of submerging himself in digital politics and cultural studies, tells Michael that making a compassionate choice is impossible:
Let's say I continue to live my life like I did back in Pittsburgh. I go to a department store and buy a shirt. It was probably produced by some slave child in the third world. I fill up my gas tank. Then I'm depositing money directly into the pockets of Middle Eastern dictators and contributing to global warming. Let's say I get married and buy my wife a ring. It's made from blood diamonds and my purchase sustains that gruesome industry... It doesn't matter what you do in this world, you can't choose to be a good person. True human connection is impossible because everything we do has a negative outcome. The only rational response is to completely and utterly abstain from everything and everyone.
But it's not all grim. Most of Pane's characters find a middle ground. Ivy Chase leaves Michael's group of friends and marries her very un-hip carpenter boyfriend. Oz makes concrete his “conscientious objection” by dropping out of graduate school and moving to a cabin in the Adirondacks. Michael's expiation of a long-held guilt drives him to the first 100% earnest connections, untainted by irony, he's forged with anybody for almost a decade. As the novel climaxes and its characters face their hard questions, Pane draws back the scrim of quirky pop culture references and allows a few scenes of real, painful vulnerability. He provides us catharsis wrapped in awkwardness.
There's a brief episode near the end of the novel where Michael meets some kids in a hotel lobby. They're playing the Naruto collectible card game and texting each other on their phones while their friends celebrate a birthday in the hotel's pool. The parallels to Michael's childhood are unmistakable, but after the “implosion” of his life and a series of raw, unguarded moments with his friends, Michael can't comprehend their digital disconnection.
“Are you texting each other?”
The tallest one nodded. “Duh.”
“But you're right next to each other.”
A different boy laughed, not at what I'd said but at some text message he'd just received. “I know, right?” he said...
“You've got the internet on your phones? I don't have the internet on my phone. How old are you?”
“And you're talking to your Facebook friends right now?”
“But aren't your friends in the pool?”
“I'm leaving them funny YouTubes on their wall.”
The moment of disconnection, a twenty-five-year-old shaking his head at the technology geeky eleven-year-olds use to separate themselves from their peers, takes a U-turn when the oldest boy asks Michael if he'd like to try it.
He held out his phone. “Do you have Facebook? Do you want to try it on my phone?”
The other boys finally stopped tapping and paid attention to me.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I'd like that a lot actually. Thank you.”
It's one of the rare cross-generational moments in Last Call in the City of Bridges, one of the only moments where we escape the rarefied irony of urban twenty-somethings, and even though it's mediated by Facebook, it's still a connection—electronic detachment gives way to the little kid ecstasy of showing off your cool toys. It's somehow redemptive. It feels like there's hope for Michael Bishop. And if there's hope for Michael Bishop, there's hope for all of us.
Ian Denning received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire in 2011. His work has appeared in Corium Magazine, Rio Grande Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Seattle and volunteers for 826 Seattle and the Richard Hugo House.